Baltimore Sun

The right’s obsession with wokeness is sign of weakness

- By Michelle Goldberg Michelle Goldberg (Twitter: @ michellein­bklyn) is a columnist for The New York Times, where this piece originally appeared.

Leonard Leo, a leader of the right-wing Federalist Society, an extraordin­arily effective legal organizati­on, is broadening his ambitions. Leo is hoping to transform American culture the way he transforme­d the judiciary. In the words of an investigat­ive report produced by ProPublica and Documented, he aims to build a sort of “Federalist Society for everything,” devoted to helping reactionar­ies consolidat­e power in realms like Wall Street, Silicon Valley, journalism, Hollywood and academia.

“I spent close to 30 years, if not more, helping to build the conservati­ve legal movement,” Leo said in a video for the organizati­on at the heart of his strategy, the Teneo Network. “And at some point or another, I just said to myself, ‘If this can work for law, why can’t it work for lots of other areas of American culture and American life where things are really messed up right now?’ ” That includes “wokeism in the corporate environmen­t, in the educationa­l environmen­t,” biased media and “entertainm­ent that is really corrupting our youth.”

Given Leo’s past success, he should be taken seriously. As Donald Trump’s adviser on judicial nomination­s, he helped put Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, all of whom have close Federalist Society ties, on the Supreme Court, making him central to the demise of Roe v. Wade. Leo has access to enormous resources; last year a conservati­ve financier donated around $1.6 billion to a dark-money group that he controls. And since many elites resent the congeries of behavioral norms and linguistic innovation­s denigrated as wokeness, the Teneo Network will start from a place of strength, pushing on an open door.

But while Leo’s grandiose project could pose a danger to liberalism, it can also be seen as a sign of existentia­l crisis on the right. It demonstrat­es how conservati­ves are relying on fantastica­l ideas about wokeness to tie together a movement that has otherwise lost much of its raison d’être.

After all, the nearly 50-year project of ending Roe is complete. Stirring crusades against Communism and then against radical Islam have subsided. The cult of personalit­y around Trump has splintered. Many on the right would still like to obliterate the welfare state, but they’re deeply defensive about it. Hatred of wokeness is a brittle foundation for political identity, but it’s almost all that’s left.

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a favorite for the Republican presidenti­al nomination, declared during his January inaugural address that “Florida is where woke goes to die.” Mike Pompeo, a former secretary of state and a possible presidenti­al candidate, recently tweeted, “Our internal threats — especially those trying to corrupt our kids with toxic wokeness — are more serious than our external threats.” At the Conservati­ve Political Action Conference, the Republican presidenti­al candidate Nikki Haley said, “Wokeness is a virus more dangerous than any pandemic.”

Given that the COVID-19 pandemic has already killed over 1 million Americans, this is transparen­tly insane, even if you find much of what falls under the rubric of wokeness annoying. Such threat inflation is best explained by the right’s desperatio­n for a unifying enemy. But to support the weight they’re putting on wokeness, conservati­ves have had to create a hallucinat­ory conspiracy theory about how progressiv­e social change works.

Take, for example, a 2020 video that ProPublica and Documented surfaced, in which the Teneo Network’s co-founder Evan Baehr described how he believed the left operates. He asked his audience to imagine a luncheon at the Harvard Club featuring a billionair­e hedge funder, a movie producer, a Harvard professor and a writer for The New York Times.

“The billionair­e says, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if middle school kids had free access to sex-change therapy paid for by the federal government?’ ” Baehr said. “Well, the filmmaker says, ‘I’d love to do a documentar­y on that; it will be a major motion film.’ The Harvard professor says, ‘We can do studies on that to say that’s absolutely biological­ly sound and safe.’ And the New York Times person says,

‘I’ll profile people who feel trapped in the wrong gender.’ ”

This may be how the organs of the right-wing counterest­ablishment function, but it’s not how mainstream institutio­ns work. (I was once seated next to a hedge fund billionair­e at a dinner; he wanted to talk about how the Democratic Party had moved too far left.) Baehr seems to believe that cultural edicts can be handed down as imperiousl­y as judicial opinions, so a handful of well-placed apparatchi­ks can redirect the zeitgeist. The Federalist Society project was fairly straightfo­rward: Replace one set of judges with another. Trying to turn back social change across American life is a far trickier thing, especially when you don’t understand where that change is coming from.

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